Reaching the Nations

Azerbaijan

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

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Geography

Area: 86,600 square km.  Located in southwestern Asia in the Caucasus, Azerbaijan borders Iran, Armenia, Georgia, Russia, and the Caspian Sea.  Azerbaijan also includes the exclave of Naxcivan, which is sandwiched between Armenia and Iran.  The Apsheron Peninsula stretches into the Caspian Sea and houses the capital city, Baku.  The Kura-Araks Lowland consists of low-laying plains which occupy the central interior.  The Caucasus Mountains reach into the north and the Karabakh Upland dominates the west.  Semiarid climate occurs in most interior areas, with temperate climate along the coast and subtropical conditions in the extreme southeast.  Droughts are natural hazards.  Environmental issues include severe air, soil, and water pollution.  Azerbaijan is administratively divided into 59 rayons, 11 cities, and one autonomous republic.

Population: 8,238,672 (July 2010)       

Annual Growth Rate: 0.762% (2010)    

Fertility Rate: 2.03 children born per woman (2010)   

Life Expectancy: 62.53 male, 71.34 female (2010)

Peoples

Azeri: 90.6%

Dagestani: 2.2%

Russian: 1.8%

Armenian: 1.5%

other: 3.9%

Azeri constitute most the population and are a significant minority group in neighboring Iran.  Dagestanis and Russians populate the Baku area and in the north by the Dagestan border.  Nearly all Armenians reside in Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Languages:  Azerbaijani (90.3%), Lezgi (2.2%), Russian (1.8%), Armenian (1.5%), other (3.3%), unspecified (1%).  Azerbaijani is the official language and only language with over one million speakers (7.44 million). 

Literacy: 98.8% (1999)

History

The ancient Persians heavily influenced modern-day Azerbaijan, which in antiquity was a Zoroastrian center.  Arabs conquered the region in the seventh century and spread Islam which several centuries later was followed by the Mongol invasions.  Prosperity returned between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, during which time the Mongols, Shirvan Shahs, and the Persian Safavid Dynasty successively ruled the country.  In the nineteenth century, regional powers fought for control over Azerbaijan, resulting in the splitting of the original Azeri homeland between Russia and Persia in 1828.  The vast oil fields in the region began to be exploited in the late nineteenth century.  Azerbaijan gained brief independence from 1918 to 1920, during which time it became the first democratic Muslim nation and granted women the right to vote. Azerbaijan was subsequently annexed by the Soviet Union.  Following independence in 1991, Azerbaijan and Armenia continued to fight over disputed Nagorno-Karabakh until a cease-fire agreement in 1994.  Oil export revenues have funneled more money into the country, yet most citizens have experienced little improvement in standard of living.  Human rights conditions have deteriorated in recent years, with stricter government control of the media, religious affairs, and politics.[1]

Culture 

One of the most Western Muslim nations in the Middle East/Caucasus region, Azerbaijani culture draws upon native, Persian, Western, and Arabic influences.  Islam is a traditional cultural influence.  A proud legacy of carpet weaving has endured for millennia, known for its intricate and beautiful designs.  Numerous native dances are performed at festivals or special occasions, such as Novruz which is a widely celebrated national holiday that traces its origins to the Zoroastrian faith.  Cigarette consumption rates compare with the United States and alcohol use is among the highest for Muslim nations in the region. 

Economy

GDP per capita: $10,400 (2009) [22.4 of US]

Human Development Index: 0.787

Corruption Index: 2.3

Azerbaijan has posted some of the most rapid economic growth rates worldwide since the mid-2000s due to increasing oil exports and growth in other sectors of the economy, namely construction, banking, and real estate.  Oil profits have been made possible primary due to the construction and use of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline, which made previously land-locked Azerbaijani oil accessible to the international market.  Prospects for greater economic growth are favorable, due to Azerbaijan's geographical location, well-educated population, and sizeable population.  Trade has significantly expanded into Europe as a result of new oil pipelines.  Natural resources include oil, natural gas, iron ore, and bauxite.   Services employ half the labor force and generate a third of the GDP whereas industry employs 12% of the work force and generates 61% of the GDP.  Primary industries include oil, natural gas, steel, iron ore, cement, chemicals, and textiles.  Agriculture accounts for 38% of the work force and generates 6% of the GDP.  Cotton, grain, rice, fruit, vegetables, tea, and tobacco are common crops.  Livestock is also an important agricultural commodity.  Primary trade partners include Italy, Turkey, Russia, India, and the United States.  

Corruption is perceived as widespread and a major deterrence toward greater economic growth and reducing wealth-poverty divides.  Government control over civil liberties and the economy have hurt foreign investment.  Corruption appears most severe in the judicial system and the police force.[2] 

Faiths

Muslim: 93%

Christian: 5%

other: 2%

Christians

Denominations  Members  Congregations

Jehovah's Witnesses  871  7

Seventh Day Adventists  714  6

Catholic  400

Latter-Day Saints  less than 10  0

Religion

Muslims account for over 90% of the population; two-thirds are Shi'a and a third are Sunni.  Few Muslims are active in their faith, but the number of religiously active Muslims has slightly increased in recent years.  Orthodox Christian account for much of the rest of the population, but few practice their religion.  There are approximately 20,000 Jews.  Traditional religious groups consist of Shi'a and Sunni Muslims, Russian Orthodox Christians, and Jews.  Other religious groups are deemed untraditional and primarily consist of Protestant Christians and other Muslim groups, many of which tend to reside in the Baku area.[3]

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index:

The constitution protects religious freedom but the government has restricted this right.  In 2009, religious legislation reduced the ability of religious groups to proselyte in an effort to reduce the spread of militant Islam.  The government generally tolerates religious activity among Shiite and Sunni Muslims and Russian Orthodox..  The constitution protects the individual right for citizens to convert to another religion, but forbids the propagation of religion, especially by foreigners.  Raids conducted by national and local authorities have occurred on non-traditional Muslim and Christian groups.  Recently approved religious legislation mandates most religious groups to reregister with the government by January 2011.  The registration process is difficult, time consuming, and allows the government to regulate the practice of religion by the selective harassment of religious groups which are denied registration.  The government requires a religious group and each of their individual congregations to register.  The law bans political parties from participating in religious activity.  The government generally permits expatriate Christians in Baku to worship freely.  Religious freedom is restricted in Nagorno-Karabakh as some Christian groups have had proselytizing materials confiscated.  Evangelical Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses, and some Muslim groups are the most heavily persecuted.[4] 

Largest Cities

Urban: 52%

Baku, Ganca, Sumgait, Mingacevir, Qaracuxur, Naxcivan, Sirvan, Bakixanov, Seki, Yevlax.

Cities listed in bold have no LDS congregations.

None of the 10 largest cities have an LDS congregation.  27% of the national population resides in the 10 largest cities.

LDS History

In 2000, Azerbaijan was assigned to the Europe East Area.[5]  In 2010, the Europe East Area administered Azerbaijan as the country has never been assigned to an LDS mission.  Any church activity occurs under the Europe East Area Presidency. 

Membership Growth

LDS Membership: less than 20 (2010)

There are no known Azerbaijani Latter-day Saints.  Missionaries in Eastern Europe have occasionally taught Azerbaijanis, but few, if any, appear to have joined the Church.  Any members in the country likely consist of expatriates from Europe and North America.

Congregational Growth

Wards: 0 Branches: 0

The Europe East Area Branch administers Azerbaijan.  There are no known groups operating.

Language Materials

Languages with LDS Scripture: Russian, Armenian (East), Armenian (West)

All LDS scriptures are available in Armenian (East) and Russian.  A wide selection of Church materials is translated in Russian whereas several Priesthood, unit, temple, Relief Society, Sunday School, teacher development, young women, Primary, missionary, audio/visual, family history, church proclamations, hymns, and children's songs are available in Armenian (East).  The Prophet Joseph Smith's Testimony, Book of Mormon selections, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price are translated in the western dialect of Armenian, which is spoken outside of Armenia.

Health and Safety

Non-traditional Christian groups report frequent government surveillance, arrests, and police raids.

Humanitarian and Development Work

Latter-day Saints have participated in at least three humanitarian projects in Azerbaijan, each of which provided clothing or hygiene kits to the needy.[6] 

 

Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects

Religious Freedom

Current laws and government policies severely restrict any activity by Latter-day Saints.  Prospects for attaining government registration appear unlikely for the foreseeable future.  The constitution prohibits the use of foreign missionaries in proselytism, which the LDS Church greatly relies upon for establishing the Church.  Member-missionary efforts also face government restrictions, requiring any local members to be passive in their conversations with others about their beliefs.  Foreign members are unable to take an active stance in establishing the Church among Azerbaijani citizens. 

Cultural Issues

Azerbaijan experiences low levels of religious participation comparable to many former Soviet Republics.  Few have a background in Christianity or have developed regular habits of mosque or church attendance, although Islamic influence has increased significantly in recent years.  Any prospective Latter-day Saint outreach would need to address the potential needs of a population which has little familiarity or background knowledge with religious principles, such as prayer or scripture reading.  The marginalization of non-traditional religious groups challenges the prospects of Azerbaijanis considering membership in the LDS Church, as investigators would likely face social reprisal and potential government harassment.  The lack of Azerbaijani Latter-day Saints abroad challenges future efforts to understand local culture and develop suitable proselytism approaches and resources. 

National Outreach

The entire population remains unreached by Latter-day Saints.  Those who have met a member of the Church or are aware of church teachings are limited to those who have traveled abroad and come into contact with missionaries or a member, or those with close personal contacts with any expatriate members who have lived in Baku over the years.  The Church did not establish a presence in the 1990s likely due to distance from operating mission outreach centers, the lack of any language materials in Azerbaijani, few, if any, local or expatriate members, warfare with Armenia over disputed Nagorno-Karabakh, and the high percentage of Muslims.  The recent implementation of new religious legislation further reduces the prospects of any future LDS Church establishment.  Armenia and Georgia (also administed by the Armenia Yerevan mission) are the only nations which borders Azerbaijan with nearby LDS congregations.  The Azerbaijan-Armenia border is totally closed, and the Azeri-Russian border is closed to foreigners.  It is unlikely that the Armenia Yerevan Mission would one day administer church work in Azerbaijan due to severe tensions and closed borders.

Member Activity and Convert Retention

Local Latter-day Saints may struggle to develop regular church attendance and other habits indicative of a lifestyle directed by church teachings due to low religious participation in traditional faiths. 

Ethnic Issues and Integration

Azerbaijanis have historically demonstrated little conflict with other ethnic groups, but in recent years face significant challenges interacting with Armenians due to conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.  Among Caucasian ethnic groups, Latter-day Saints have experienced the greatest success attracting converts and establishing the Church with Armenians. Almost all Armenians have left Azerbaijan since the early 1990s. Ongoing tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia have contributed to the marginalization of Christians and increased Islamic solidarity.

Language Issues

As of 2010, there remained no LDS scriptures or materials translated into Azerbaijani dialects, which are spoken by some 19 million people in Azerbaijan and Iran.  Restrictions on proselytism, the lack of any known LDS presence in either country, and few if any Azerbaijani-speaking Latter-day Saints worldwide will likely delay any forthcoming translations of LDS materials for many decades to come.  LDS materials translated into Armenian dialects can be utilized in Nagorno-Karabakh.  

Missionary Service

No Azerbaijanis are known to have served a full-time mission.  LDS missionaries have never been assigned to Azerbaijan. 

Temple

Azerbaijan pertains to the Kyiv Ukraine Temple district.  

Comparative Growth

Azerbaijan is one of the least reached former Soviet Republics and the only one in the Caucasus without an official Church presence.  All former Soviet Republics in Central Asia are Muslim-majority and most are unreached by Latter-day Saints.  However, most of these countries have a few known local Latter-day Saint converts or LDS expatriate families.  Azerbaijani is the language with the tenth most speakers worldwide without any LDS materials.  

Several missionary-oriented Christian groups entered Azerbaijan after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but have faced increasing restrictions regarding their operation and religious freedoms.  Seventh Day Adventists have baptized fewer than 50 converts a year over the past decade, but have experienced no noticeable growth in membership.  Jehovah's Witnesses have gained hundreds of followers, but are heavily persecuted by the government.  Limited success by these groups indicates that Latter-day Saints have missed their opportunity to enter Azerbaijan for the foreseeable future and that meaningful church growth opportunities exist despite challenging social and political conditions. 

Future Prospects

There appears to be no realistic opportunities for Latter-day Saints to enter the country and establish the Church unless recent government restrictions prohibiting foreign missionary proselytism and member-missionary activity are amended.  There may be some unexplored development projects which humanitarian senior missionary couples based in Armenia can implement.  The translation of basic proselytism materials in Azerbaijani will be greatly needed for any missionary work to occur one day.


[1]  "Background Note: Azerbaijan," Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, 14 June 2010.  http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2909.htm

[2]  "Azerbaijan," 2010 Index of Economic Freedom, retrieved 8 October 2010.  http://www.heritage.org/index/country/azerbaijan

[3]  "Azerbaijan," International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127299.htm

[4]  "Azerbaijan," International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127299.htm

[5]  Lloyd, Scott.  "European continent realigned into three new areas," LDS Church News, 16 September 2000.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/38475/European-continent---realigned-into-three-new-areas.html

[6]  "Projects - Azerbaijan," Humanitarian Activities Worldwide, retrieved 8 October 2010.  http://www.providentliving.org/project/0,13501,4607-1-2008-49,00.html